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Ad-libbed, asleep, and going for gold: Memorable States of the Union

Watch some of the most famous lines from past State of the Union addresses.

Formulaic and often little more than a point-by-point policy primer, the State of the Union – which is not technically required to be a speech – is often something many Americans watch out of sheer democratic obligation. But even the staid corridors of Congress can come alight with the unscripted during the president’s constitutionally mandated address to legislators. Here are some of the more memorable State of the Union moments from history:

Polk strikes gold
Talk about giving the economy a boost. Eleventh President James K. Polk used his 1848 address to set off what would become the Gold Rush, sending bands of “Forty-Niners” on a journey westward. Before then, prospective prospectors had been wary of claims of a hidden El Dorado under the westernmost state’s soil. “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief,” Polk said in his speech, revealing that a quicksilver mine being worked in California was “believed to be among the most productive in the world.”

National Archives / Getty Images

Undated portrait of U.S. President James K. Polk

‘One year of Watergate is enough’
Nice try, Dick. If there was one person in 1974 who’d had enough of all that Woodward-Bernstein nonsense tracing the misdeeds of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President or the White House “Plumbers” – the five men arrested after being caught breaking into the Watergate Hotel in 1972 – it was President Richard Milhous Nixon. “As you know, I have provided to the Special Prosecutor voluntarily a great deal of material,” he said in January of that year. “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” America’s 37th president resigned in disgrace seven months later.

 Reagan cracks wise
A dash of standup likely isn’t what Republicans are looking for when they say that President Obama would do well to crib from the Gipper. In his first State of the Union, President Ronald Reagan harkened back to the words of that most unimpeachable of Founding Fathers, George Washington. “President Washington began this tradition in 1790 after reminding the nation that the destiny of self-government and the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty is finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” Reagan said in his own 1982 speech. “For our friends in the press who place a high premium on accuracy, let me say, I did not actually hear George Washington say that.”

Clinton’s teleprompter breaks
The first in a series of eventful State of the Unions, Bill Clinton’s famous loquacity saved his first address and some poor teleprompter operator’s neck in 1993 after the wrong speech was loaded into the machine during his 1993 address. Clinton flew solo for seven minutes while what was surely a sweaty-palmed script scroller tried to catch up – even as the commander-in-chief added whole new paragraphs and other emendations to the prepared text.

Reuters

President George W. Bush delivers his State of the Union speech in 2003 as Vice President Dick Cheney looks on.

Clinton clashes with OJ verdict
The State of the Union provides presidents with a rare platform to address the nation at length on a variety of policy issues. Television news stations narrowly avoided a moral quandary as tangled as America’s obsession with celebrity trials when, in 1997, Clinton almost wound up contending for air time with the verdict in O.J. Simpson’s civil trial. The major networks stuck with the president, switching immediately after the speech ended to Simpson coverage in Los Angeles.

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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito looks on as President Obama enters the chamber before his first State of the Union address in 2010.

Bush’s 16 words
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” With these words in his 2003 State of the Union, President George W. Bush set off his own chain reaction that some critics contend led to the war in Iraq. Later that year, CIA Director George J. Tenet said that “the President had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound,” but that the line shouldn’t have made the final cut. “These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President.”

Alito mouths ‘Not true’
While the other Supreme Court justices present sat black-robed and expressionless during President Obama’s speech in 2010, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., gave his own quiet commentary during a section on campaign finance. “I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities,” Obama said – a line that drew applause from Democrats but a furrowed brow and the apparently mouthed words “not true, not true” from the Supreme Court justice.

Major Garrett’s NSFW Tweet
The chief White House correspondent for Fox News added some flavor to the 2010 State of the Union Address when he mistakenly tweeted a link to a Las Vegas-based adult website instead of the speech excerpts he seemingly intended. The reporter, Major Garrett, apologized in a later tweet and blamed the mishap on a link-shortening service. “Bit.ly turned my original link to SOTU excertps to a soft-porn link,” Garrett wrote. “NOT my intention.”

Evan Vucci / AP File

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., left, applauds during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in 2011 as an unidentified woman appears to sleep behind him. Rep. Peter King is at right.

Obama puts woman to sleep
Strenuous effort might perhaps get one a seat at the State of the Union, but it can also be pretty exhausting. Such might have been the case with the red-clad woman seated behind Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., at President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union. She seemed to suffer a sudden stroke of narcolepsy just as the president said that America’s children need to be taught that “success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”